You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners needs to put an end to per diems

By Tony Dearing

As tight as money is for local government these days, it’s amazing how loose the controls are over per diem spending by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

While a review of per diems collected by commissioners remains underway, it’s already clear to us that many of them submitted and received per diem reimbursements they weren’t eligible for.

The per diem issue was raised in the fiercely contested race for the 52nd state House, which Mark Ouimet won handily on Tuesday. Democrats accused Ouimet, the Republican candidate, of inappropriately collecting per diems and mileage during the time he served on the county board. 

A long-standing county policy allows commissioners to collect a per diem of $25 and mileage for attending board meetings or meetings of certain committees they serve on.  A preliminary review by a staff member in the office of County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum listed $16,600 in per diems and mileage that Ouimet collected between 2005 and 2009 as ineligible or questionable under the policy.

ʉ۬While Ouimet, who served as vice chairman of the county board, by far had the most per diems collected, the staff review also listed the per diems of nine other commissioners as ineligible or questionable, in amounts ranging from $4,861 to $56. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, was the only commissioner who submitted no requests for per diem payments during the period reviewed.

While Kestenbaum was charitable in saying the rules for collecting per diems weren’t entirely clear until this year, the policy is pretty straightforward. It lists a number of specific boards and committees and if you are appointed to serve on one of them, you can collect a per diem. We don’t see the ambiguity in that.

What’s lacking was not clarity, but accountability. Basic financial controls demand that requests for expense reimbursements should be reviewed by someone who has clear authority to challenge any expense that does not appear to be appropriate. In this case, reimbursement requests from county commissioners went to a staff member in the Clerk’s Office, who simply put them through to be paid. We can’t fault the staffer, who didn’t have the necessary authority to question expenses. We fault the absence of adequate controls.

While the issue of per diems became a political hot potato during the election season, this inappropriate collecting of payments went on for years. Early this year, commissioners took modest steps to curb the problem when they voted to limit per diem and travel reimbursements to about $3,500 a year per commissioner.

But much more needs to be done to curb this problem.  County Administrator Verna McDaniel has asked a senior auditor from the Rehmann Robson public accounting firm to do an independent, non-partisan review of per diem and mileage payments to commissioners. When the report is released, commissioners should repay the county for any per diems they inappropriately collected. In fact, some have already done so.

Even while that review is taking place, the board should be taking additional steps to guard against future abuses of the system. At the very least, it should put some clear accountability into the process of reviewing per diem reimbursement requests. McDaniel has said she plans to propose a new process for submitting per diem and mileage requests, and that would be welcome.

However, the more obvious and preferable solution would be for the county board to do away with per diem payments altogether. Per diems are a vestige of a time gone by.

County commissioners already collect a salary of $15,000, and that is more than adequate to offset the out-of-pocket expenses that they incur while serving in office. Other local elected officials receive little or no salary, and yet don’t collect per diems. County commissioners shouldn’t either, particularly in these tough budget times.

Commissioner Leah Gunn, D-Ann Arbor, who stopped taking per diems in 2008, has said she will revive a resolution she offered in 2009 calling on commissioners to eliminate per diems and travel reimbursements. This is an idea that’s well overdue. Abolish the per diems now.

(Editor’s note: Bob Guenzel, who serves as a community representative on our Editorial Board, is the former administrator for Washtenaw County and recused himself from our deliberations on this issue.)



Tue, Nov 9, 2010 : 5:26 p.m.

There are many persons who serve on city and county boards and commissions throughout the state who, due to budget constraints, get paid nothing except mileage. Service on these government bodies is done out of a sense of public service and a realization that not taking any compensation for one's time is in and of itself an act of sacrifice for the public good. Virtue is its own reward.


Mon, Nov 8, 2010 : 8:07 a.m.

Gentle persons - My remark was meant to be sarcastic. I am sorry I did not catch the people were taking it seriously. I will try to note that I am using sarcasm in the future, since unlike some others here, I rarely do. My apologies for taking the discussion off topic.

David Briegel

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 9:15 p.m.

bornblu, You might note we never used the term illegal. I referred numerous times to the resume padding of "Dr" Ouimet and his expense account padding. All "values" which you Repubs would never ignore in a Dem. I don't think any of this was attacking but rather illuminating. I won't comment on your "moral compass".


Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 8:53 p.m.

David and Tom; I have yet to see any conclusive proof that the per diems reimbursed to Mr. Ouimet, or any of the other commissioners for that fact, were "illegal". I believe that investigation is still continuing and at this point "questionable" is the operable phrase for not only Mr. Ouimet, but all other commissioners having been reimbursed per diems. I do not accept outright dishonesty, but my moral compass is pointed toward the act and not exclusive to the political party or amount. These are the points that you either overlooked or omitted in your attacks. Personally I am much more concerned as to the "junkets" being taken at our expense (and their questionable value) than "questionable" per diem charges for attending to county business within the county (with all due respect to Ms. Judge and others prior posts to the contrary). I am not politically knowledgeable enough to determine the effect this had on the vote percentage, but as an independent voter who supported Judge Shelton's candidacy years ago and Pam Byrnes (financially and otherwise) while she represented this district; and discussed with her at the Saline polls the lack of Democratic emphasis on their positions, your attack mentality, I believe, had a significant negative impact among voters. Furthermore, if my memory is correct, the issue of per diems had been previously discussed, and was continuing to be addressed by the commissioners, prior to and in lieu of your constant barrage of publicity. In brief, you may have been successful had you simply raised the issue once and then stuck to presenting the position of, and campaigning for, your candidate.

Tom Wieder

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 7:29 p.m.

@bornblu - "Mr. Wieder; let it go, the election is over. Your brand of politicing was not accepted, Mr. Ouimet won!" My "brand of politicing?" Do you mean bringing up undisputed facts regarding the fitness for office of a candidate? "Not accepted.." And you know this, how? Because Ouimet won? If he would have won by 10%, but only won by 3%, because the per diem issue was raised, raising this issue most certainly was accepted. I won't go into the entire analysis here, but I think it's pretty clear that the per diem issue took a significant toll on Ouimet's votes, as it should have. In a year when the GOP was far outperforming usual standards in districts across the state, Ouimet just barely hit the GOP baseline in this district. Remember, this district was drawn by a Republican legislature to be a Republican seat and has a partisan baseline of about +3% Republican. A non-incumbent Dem has never won it in a gubernatorial year. This thing was this close, precisely because of the relevant negative information brought forward about Ouimet. More importantly, an issue of public policy - the propriety of paying per diems at all - that probably wouldn't have been discussed at all if it hadn't been raised as part of the campaign, is now being examined, discussed and written about. Because we raised this issue, there is a good chance that per diems will be eliminated. This thread is in response to an editorial by an organization that endorsed Ouimet, calling for the elimination of the per diems. I would say that what we raised in the campaign has attained rather broad acceptance!

David Briegel

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 5:54 p.m.

Tom and Larry, excellent responses. DonBee, I frequently agree with you but not on this one. No pay limits "service" to the idle rich. Travel and networking is certainly a valuable way to broaden ones knowledge and experiences. I used to travel about 3 times a year and my boss always benefitted from the professional enhancements in our organization. I always returned with new ideas and my batteries recharged! Shep, bornblu, Yes, Mr Ouimet won. Probably half the people voting for him never even heard of these issues! And did he win because of his "high standards" of padding his resume and his expenses? Just a touch ironic that you would object to Dems for such things?

Larry Kestenbaum

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 5:23 p.m.

I have been opposed to commissioner per diems for years, so naturally I very much agree with the editorial. However, I strongly disagree with the idea put forth by some commenters that county commissioners should serve without any compensation whatever. The commissioners are responsible both for policymaking and for maintaining the fiscal soundness of the county, and we need the best possible individuals for this work. As it is, there is little real competition for these positions. I am gratified that the report from the independent auditors shows almost exactly the same numbers as the one prepared by my office.


Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 4:52 p.m.

Ms. Gunn; Your proposals and resolutions certianly make sense, specifically your philosophy and resolutions regarding per diems and attendance at out of county conferences and meetings (amazing how many are at locations such as Florida, Nevada, Hawaii, etc.). DonBee; I also like your concept of no riembursement, but service for the sake of service relative to the improvement of our community. This idea also has validity for a number of other organizations as well (city council, school board, etc.). I have seen this non riembursement work well for any number of non-profit organization boards; and representation has been extremely diverse. Mr. Wieder; let it go, the election is over. Your brand of politicing was not accepted, Mr. Ouimet won!

Tom Wieder

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 3:28 p.m.

@shepard145- You make no sense. I'm the person who brought to public attention Ouimet's excessive and improper use of per diems. The County Clerk determined that there were over $26,000 in ineligible or questionable per diems and mileage reimbursements received by the Commissioners. (Over $20,000 were Ouimet's and Ping's.) That's a pretty damn big "fly speck." Who are the "corrupt, partisan hacks" you're referring to that you think should resign? Me? How am I "corrupt?" And what would I resign from? Or do you mean Clerk Kestenbaum, who was asked by the County Administrator to examine the per diems and issue a report, not one item of which has been challenged as incorrect by anyone? What irresponsible, unjustified, nasty name-calling. Have you no decency? @DonBee - Why should elected officials work for no compensation? It's an important job that takes a lot of time. The compensation should be reasonable, but if you make it zero, it means that, in the main, only retired or wealthy people will serve. Just because probably the richest person on the Washtenaw Board - Ouimet - abused the system doesn't mean that no one should get paid anything for this work.


Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 1:42 p.m.

Here is an idea, just take away all salary, reimbursement, per diem, travel, or other funds. If you want to serve as a county commissioner, you do it for free, not for money of any sort. That will total fix the problem. No money from the tax payers goes to any county commissioner or other elected official in the county. Sound good, should let us get a lot of good honest candidates for office. Right?


Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 1:14 p.m.

I think corrupt, partisan hacks who suddenly get the urge to fly-speck the expense accounts of Commissioners in the other party just prior to an election should resign.

Basic Bob

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 12:22 p.m.

Opposing taxpayer-financed conference travel is not silly, it is fiscally responsible. We have heard the sound bites of what has been brought back, and it has consisted entirely of new ways to campaign or spend other people's money. 1. CVS/Caremark prescription card: This card entitles the bearer to spend more on prescriptions than a CVS walk-in customer. If one wishes to save money, they can take the bus to Meijer, Target, or Walmart. 2. Cyber coalition: We have started a website to take publicly available information and redistribute it. A needless waste of taxpayer money for campaign fodder. 3. Transparency: This buzz word is so overused it's not funny. We need to judge political candidates on what they accomplish, not on how bad they tarnish the political opposition. I would like to see our county commissioners focused on local problems, such as why it is acceptable to cut down several century-old trees for an asphalt path.

Leah Gunn

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 12:18 p.m.

Travel has been one item that has been abused, with one Commissioner not only spending the alloted money in the flex account, but then asking for more. This same Commissioenr also spent Community Services money in 2009. That would better be spent on direct service to those in need. It is my belief that travel does not broaden a Commissioner's perspective. The trips are simply junkets. I went to a few conferences early in my career, and I found them useless. The main problem lies in that counties in Michigan lack jurisdiction over many items that are discussed, such as planning, zoning and schools. It is better that staff should travel and report back to Comissioners.

Tom Wieder

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 11:59 a.m.

I certainly favor eliminating all per diems. Commissioners should be paid a reasonable part-time salary for doing their work. This would include participation in the various committees, boards and commissions to which they are appointed, just the way members of City Council, the State Legislature and Congress are compensated. I'm a little more sympathetic to mileage reimbursement, when it's more than simply going from home to the County Building. That is a true out-of-pocket expense that varies a lot, depending on where the commissioner lives and where the meetings are held. Also, it is something that employees in most jobs routinely receive. The notion that commissioners should never go to any out-of-state conferences on taxpayer money is silly. There are useful meetings and conferences where attendance can be helpful to the county. There should be strict controls and pre-approval, and the amounts should be limited, but it shouldn't be assumed that they're all worthless junkets. @failed2conform - Your math is off. $16K wasn't Ouimet's TOTAL for the years involved; it was the amount that the Clerk said was ineligible or questionable. His total for the 5 years before the $3500/yr limit went into effect in 2010 was $33,405, or $6,681 per year, almost twice the new limit.

Leah Gunn

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 10:58 a.m.

My resolution includes per diems, mileage within or without the county and any travel, specified as transportation, registration at conferences and meetings, and meals. There is indeed a wealth of information avaiable through webinars and video conferencing.


Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 8:58 a.m.

Why do I feel like something just happened that involved smoke and mirrors? "Early this year, commissioners took modest steps to curb the problem when they voted to limit per diem and travel reimbursements to about $3,500 a year per commissioner." This sounds like they have begun to control the problem, but Ouimet's $16K was accrued over 4 years, $3,500 X 4 = $14K - not so significant...

Steve the Wookiee

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 8:17 a.m.

Agree with Basic Bob that commissioner trips are suspect and I would go a step further and say they are unneeded. If academics can conduct top level research with collegues across the country via the internet, there is no reason for an elected official to travel to Reno or Hawaii on the public's dime. There is a wealth of information and new ideas at your finger tips. Stop per diems and travel.

Basic Bob

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 : 7:49 a.m.

This is a good idea. It should make the commissioners' flex accounts unnecessary. IMO, commissioner trips to Reno and Traverse City are suspect when paid by taxpayer money. These should be quickly eliminated with the same resolution.